Parshat Bachaalotekha: Numbers 8:1-12:16; Zachariah 2:14-4:7
Think back to your childhood, and I’m sure you can remember a time you received a birthday or Chanukah gift that you did not like. Possibly the giver of the gift perceived your explicit or implicit disappointment.
Now, jump ahead to adulthood, and you realize that a polite “thank you” would have been the best response. Moreover, the gift that once disappointed you might actually have turned out to be something quite useful.
Another childhood scenario: You’re in the car on a family vacation to a great place (think Disney World); all you can think about and speak about are the complaints: the crowded conditions in the car, the time it takes to get there, etc.
It is in these contexts that we should read Bamidbar (Numbers) 11, in which the Israelites complain about their food. What they have to eat is manna, a mysterious gift from God that appeared every morning of the Israelites’ 40-year journey from Egypt to Canaan and provided them with necessary sustenance. The Torah’s description of the manna is indeed appetizing, tasting either like wafers in honey (Exodus 16:31) or rich cream (Numbers 11:8).
Manna is also identified as “bread,” and some believe that it had the unique quality of tasting like many different things. In Exodus 16:23, as the Torah is first describing manna, a Hebrew word appears, meaning “you (plural) will bake,” but pronounced in Hebrew, “TOFU.” Now there’s a food that can taste like many different things!
Whatever manna actually was and however it tasted, the Torah is clear that the Israelites ought to be grateful for this Divine sustenance; instead, they complained that they wanted something more, namely some meat.
At this point, we witness that age-old piece of advice: “Be careful what you wish for; it might come true.”
The wish of the Israelites is granted; they receive their meat, in the form of quail; but God, frustrated at the Israelites’ lack of gratitude for the remarkable gift they receive every day, strikes those who demanded meat with a fatal plague.
Having the benefit of hindsight, we clearly see the message of “Be careful what you wish for … “The Torah’s wisdom has been shared in modern culture, such as the Tom Hanks movie Big, in which a young boy is regretfully granted his wish to grow up too quickly, and The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy dreams of traveling “over the rainbow,” but ultimately learns that “there’s no place like home.”
The Rolling Stones’ version of the Torah’s message comes to us via their famous lyrics: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find you get what you need.”
Our Jewish approach, when experiencing the amazing gift of life-sustaining food, is not to wish we had something different to eat, but rather to express gratitude that there is food on our plates and in our bellies, and to declare, prior to and following our meal, our humble appreciation through the words of berakhah, of blessing and praise to God for the miracle of food.
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Elliot Pachter is the rabbinic adviser at the Frankel Jewish Academy, and Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation B’nai Moshe, both in West Bloomfield.